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K. C. Miller

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The Traditional Way
By K. C. Miller
Thursday, February 06, 2003

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My story of coming a little bit closer to undestanding nature and a little culture.

The Traditional Way

The caribou herd milling around us is 20,000 strong on this late December day in western Alaska. The large mass moves as one near the shale gray pock marked mountain range, blending in nicely with a mixture of brown and cream colored snow, as a small cloud of their white hot breath floats on the slight but frigid breeze. A small number stop long enough to dig with sharp hooves through foot deep wind-crusted snow after lichen, berries, and moss.

They pay little attention as my hunting partners and I get down to the work of cleaning our kills. But before I can really get started I am suddenly compelled to stop, my gaze pulled up almost against my will to watch the caribou flow around us.

The animals are close yet keep their distance. It is obvious they see us but treat us indifferently, as though they have decided as long as we don't harm them, they won't run. We had hurt them though, yet the herd seems to have already forgotten.

This hunt is, for me, my first look of snow covered tundra adjacent the Kilbuck Mountains, dotted in every direction with this very alive, and large amount of milling life. Usually it is almost devoid of such large animals. But after nearly a quarter century, the herd, swelled to a sufficient number, has somehow decided it is time to offer up a small portion of itself. A signal to man that the land is respected and being managed well, and can now afford to give a gift to those living near that flat and vast, red willow dotted expanse, just south and east of Bethel on the Kuskokwim River.

Pondering that last thought, I look in the direction of that bustling town of 7,000 people. The low-slung sun marks the town's location, and at the same time basks the sky in feigned warmth near the horizon in a light pink. It is amazing to know that Bethel is only twenty air-miles to the west of us, and that we had only to travel thirty miles, crossing many frozen lakes and sloughs by snow machine, to hunt such a large herd of caribou.

The lights from that hub, connecting the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta to the rest of the world, appear to be much closer than they really are and look as if they are suspended somehow in the shimmering air of an inversion. Mother nature is playing tricks with my sight. It is another way that winter shows it holds a firm grip.

The only movement, as I take in the serene beauty of this smooth looking yet forbidding land, is that of the caribou. And, of course, the occasional black raven, reflecting the pink color of the sky on its wings, gracefully riding the slight breeze to maneuver over us for a better look at the fresh kills. Its loud, "caa, caa," breaks the silence, but the herd doesn't notice the feathered scavenger, swooping by once, then again before flying on, searching, ever searching.

As the afternoon progresses, except for the double horizon to our west, the hazy blue and fuchsia sky and sparkling salmon-colored layer of snow meld into one. But the herd seems not to take note of this great land, or of their beautiful surroundings. They seem only to care about their survival as they constantly dig at the snow, chewing in unison. Or rather they know they are part of the land, but are too busy subsisting in this harsh climate to enjoy it.

Many of them occasionally cast glances our way. It forces me to realize that they are somehow filled with a certain type of knowledge and sense we are no threat, even as we openly butcher their own kind. It is as if they care little that we have taken from them and don't mind our presence. They take us for what we are, easily able to tell the difference between us and, their howling, yellow-eyed and gray-furred nemesis, the wolf. Or, is the herd simply waiting for something?

It feels strange to be in their midst like this, among such natural elegance, set near low wind-swept brown-spotted mountains to our south that gradually connect to a faint and distant green/black tree-line further east. Although it's not true , the land seems untouched, as if having never been encountered by man before. And, somehow, because of that thought, it feels right. The caribou allow us the privilege of hunting here, and to take a small amount of their number. Somehow, to their reasoning, man is now worthy of the gift, and they are here to keep their end of some ancient bargain.

I consider myself lucky to share in this fine day, so I make a point to honor the Native tradition of giving thanks to the caribou spirit. Although I wasn't born in Alaska I feel responsible to and bound by that practice somehow, even if I'm unsure how Native generations of the past showed their thanks. One thing I am positive about though, is that to do nothing is wrong, and so I make an offering to that great spirit by placing a small piece of caribou heart into the tundra near my fallen animal. Abruptly, after I cover the shallow hole in the ground, the caribou turn and speed off.

They leave with a rumbling thunder of hooves and cloud of thrown snow accented a deep orange by the setting sun. The herd has become a living, fluid carpet of beige, flowing quickly over the slightly uneven frozen tundra. Within seconds, the caribou are nearly out of sight. Besides the tamped snow, only their collective fog of expelled breath is evidence of any passing, which rises into the rapidly cooling late afternoon, forming a low shroud of wavering ice crystals that ride the scant wind, then gradually, and very slowly settle gently onto the now red-tinged snow. The result is a section of tundra that looks to be covered by millions of sparkling diamonds, marking the wake of the herd's flight.

With my breath caught in my throat, I try repeatedly to swallow as my companions and I share a look of wonder at the scene, when the caribou reach the base of the mountains some ten miles away. Unexpectedly turning east like that of a mist enshrouded body of muddy water, the animals seem to churn and boil as if a liquid propelled by wind over rock, then, disappear from sight. I marvel at their amazing speed and agility. Finally, with effort I am able to swallow, and at the same time I wonder what could make them break like that, as I still do to this day.

The way I perceive nature changed that very moment. I always thought man took what he wanted from the animal kingdom, but that isn't really how it works. Only the people of the earth that show respect toward them and acknowledge the sacrifices made by the animals over the centuries are really worthy of what nature has to offer. And, that can only be done by honoring the traditional way.

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